It is 1956. World War II ended in a flurry of rocketships, with aliens and alien tech intervening on various sides. The Soviets were chased out of East Berlin with rockets. Mankind has gone to space - and found that it's already inhabited by various unsavory and opportunistic types. Our reaching space was immediately followed by space reaching back - various alien races from Venus and shadow planets behind the Sun and elsewhere swooped down.
It's sort of chaos.
And governments hate chaos.
Ignition City is a comic book miniseries (5 issues) by Warren Ellis, with art by Gianluca Pagliarini of AETHERIC MECHANICS.
When Ignition City begins, all of the above is background. Governments around the planet are starting to restrict space travel, which so far has been a mostly personal endeavour - engineers and tinkerers and adventurers (as a group known as "Explorers") assembling rockets and blasting off for the unknown. But in the first few panels, we learn that Great Britain, trying to avoid calling attention to itself from above, has banned spaceflight. The U.S. government has forcibly exercised eminent domain on all personal spacecraft. In fact, over all the Earth, there's really only one active spaceport left.
A roughly circular artificial island near the equator, Ignition City's perimeter along the shoreline is composed of launch facilities and active spaceport - the 'launch ring.' In the center of the island is the Interior. The Interior is where the space heroes go to die. Drinking themselves into oblivion, cursing their fate, sleeping in gutters, all of them 'leadfeet' - stuck to the earth, with no way back into the sky where they dearly wish to be.
In a rare moment of nostalgia, I’d decided to download an episode of one of the old FLASH GORDON serials. Buster Crabbe running around, with his peroxide hair that he was so embarrassed about that he used to keep his hat on all the time while in public, unconscionable rudeness in 1930 America. Total nostalgia trip for me, because all of those things — the FLASH GORDON serials, the old BUCK ROGERS serial, KING OF THE ROCKETMEN and all that — were shown on British TV when I was a kid. “Steam-powered STAR WARS,” my dad used to call them.
And I’m watching DEADWOOD, the American cable TV series that eviscerates the Western genre, mixing history with fiction in its imagining of the last days of the Wild West. And it suddenly occurs to me. Where did the space heroes go when they weren’t in space anymore? I found myself looking at the clapboard and pine of the Deadwood camp and seeing it made out of bits of abandoned 1930s sci-fi rocketship, and a fifty-year-old Flash Gordon calling people “cocksucker.”
Sure, there's more of a story than that. Spacegirl Mary Raven, in Berlin at the opening of the tale, receives word that her space pilot father Rock Raven has died in Ignition City. Lamenting the governments which are pinning her down to Earth, she decides that she needs to go to Ignition City to recover her father's effects, and to find out how and why the hell he died.
That's where it all starts.
Ignition City is, therefore, an alternate history space story, much like Ellis' Ministry of Space, but much less explicit. Nearly all the story, with the exception of a couple of panels of expository memories and the few pages in Berlin at the beginning, takes place in Ignition City itself, a squalid settlement where the heroes lie in gutters. Most of the history that is relevant to this tale is delivered either in asides, throwaway lines, or in the sparse exposition we get from the characters. That's okay. This is a character story; the setting itself was devised to support the characters, and they are why we read it.
It's a small story, in the end - the story of a few people, not the story of a world. Except that parts of their story do affect the greater world; we just don't see that happen directly. It's not important to our story. The squalor, the jetpacks, the booze, the food pills, the alien scavengers, the ray guns, the corruption, the bribery - these are important.
The art is lush and colorful, with the softer touches of a painter as opposed to the harder lines of a comic sketch artist. The color palette is heavily influenced by Ellis' Deadwood vision - reds and browns and oranges and tans abound. Sharper primary colors are reserved for the few instances of alternate high tech - electric gun blasts and jetpack exhaust and the like. Blues and greens are almost a fantasy, showing up only in visions of happier times and places.
The story is classic Ellis. There are direct homages to Flash Gordon, to Buck Rogers, to The Rocketeer, and a myriad other pulp and 'steam-powered Star Wars' icons.
In my opinion, Ministry of Space is more fun, because the base idea of the alternate history there is much more fully developed and spun out; the fun there is watching that divergence grow and flower. It's a story of a world. Here, the divergence is almost entirely offscreen and static; we're watching a familiar plot and play among characters who just happen to be set somewhere amazing and fanciful. But that doesn't mean this one isn't really good; it is.
Ignition City is available in both hardcover and paperback collected editions from your favorite booksellers. It was first published in 2009 (paperback collection in 2010) by Avatar Press.
Iron Noder 2010